• 2007-04-04

cartoon by J. CHeKSTERS

Sergei Ivanov, first vice deputy prime minister of Russia and a possible successor to Vladimir Putin, on April 3 called on Russians to boycott Estonian goods and services as punishment for the Baltic state's plans to dismantle the Bronze Soldier monument and a nearby burial site thought to contain the remains of Soviet soldiers. "Don't buy Estonian products," said Ivanov in his appeal, and "don't go to Estonia for vacation 's go to Kaliningrad."

This appeal was not unexpected, and in a sense was long overdue. In all likelihood the Russians were just waiting for the new Estonian government to be formed and see what its stance would be on the disputed World War II monument. And with a center-right government now formed and waiting parliamentary approval, it would seem the fate of the monument and grave is sealed: they will both be relocated to sites further away from downtown Tallinn to make confrontations between nationalists and Russians less likely.

Ivanov's call is not new; we've seen it before. In the late 1990s there were similar appeals by Russian politicians to boycott Latvian products. These calls were marginally successful, though with time Russian consumers forgot their grudges and resumed their former consumption habits, which include Latvian cheese, sprats and champagne.
This time around, however, the situation could be different 's and much to Estonia's detriment. In the 1990s Boris Yeltsin was president, and the wave of Russian nationalism was shallow and easily evaporated. Under Vladimir Putin, by contrast, we have witnessed a resurging tide of hard-core patriots who are more than willing to go beyond simply canceling the summer trip to Parnu. A group of these individuals could decide to apply a little "pro-active pressure" on small and medium entrepreneurs who, despite Ivanov's calls, continue to conduct business with Estonia. It is not unimaginable that shops selling Estonian goods and tour agencies offering package-trips to Tallinn could be vandalized. This is the chief difference between now and then.

Ivanov's appeal is also interesting in that it shows how little maneuverability the Kremlin has in its row with Estonia. "This is not about government sanctions," Ivanov said April 3, "this is a civil stance." The Foreign Ministry has already made it clear that it does not support economic sanctions, despite calls to implement such measures by the State Duma (lower house of Parliament). Russian businessmen own a large swathe of Estonia's transit business, and it is they who would suffer first and foremost from an all-out state-sponsored sanction.

Still, even they may not escape the Kremlin's ire. In Ivanov's words, "We need to complete construction of the Ust-Luga port faster in order not to feed the Estonian budget with transit cargo."
This, too, is more than likely to become reality, as the past shows. Irked by Latvia in the 1990s, Moscow made construction of the Primorsk oil terminal on the Gulf of Finland a priority project in order to sever dependency on Venstpils. Five years on, and the pipeline to Latvia's port town is still dry. Now that is determination, and it would be wise if Estonia's economic planners factored this into their future calculations.